It is recollection time as stage director Alexander Cortez puts the finishing touches to his direction of Dulaang UP’s (DUP) 39th season opener, Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” (Hakbang sa Hakbang), which opens on Aug. 20 and runs until Sept. 7 at the Guerrero Theater of Palma Hall in UP Diliman.
In 1976, Cortez was one of the founding members of the UP-based theater company, along with actor-mentor Tony Mabesa who taught at the Department of Speech and Drama, Institute of Mass Communication and the English Department. At the time, there were very few theater majors; Cortez had an early taste of theater multi-tasking.
“I was already known as Mr. Dulaang UP because I was production manager, stage manager, set designer and actor. It gave me solid training and a firm grasp of DUP’s foundation.”
For 13 years, he was DUP’s managing director, from its 13th to 25th seasons. He became the artistic director on its 33rd season.
“You can say that we survived in spite of the high cost of mounting theater productions,” he adds. With more students enrolled in the theater department, production work is now evenly distributed among freshmen and sophomore students, while juniors and seniors are cast in most productions.
With a new theater pavilion still in the planning stage, the problems remain the same with the current cramped venue—the need for more rehearsal spaces, a set and costume morgue, production design center and state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment. The Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater needs an honest-to-goodness overhaul, and Cortez is thankful that the university chancellor appears to be supportive.
“We are quite optimistic that things will be for the better this year in terms of infrastructure and better equipment. What is exciting is that given the limitation of space and financial resource, we’ve managed to turn in some of the most exciting plays staged by an academic theater. Dulaang UP can proudly claim that it has done all the works representative of the major theater periods.
“From the very beginning, DUP has set a high standard for its productions of various genres. With four plays a season (sometimes five), the four resident directors—Tony Mabesa, Jose Estrella, Dexter Santos and myself—have distinct directorial styles and preferences, which makes for exciting season lineups. As a result, theater audiences see different directors with their own artistic temperament, discipline and sensitivity.”
Indeed, many aspects of DUP’s season attractions make it vastly different from other university-based theater groups. Apart from its regular season of four to five plays a year (which Cortez thinks is the true mettle of a theater company), the directors encourage the participation of professional theater practitioners.
“We believe that this will help provide our students further lessons not found in books, with experienced actors sharing their experiences with our young, impressionable students.”
For another, foreign plays are often staged in both English and Filipino versions.
“We believe we can build a new market for those interested in the classics but want to hear them in Filipino. Thus far, we have been successful with this practice in terms of bringing in more audiences.”
Cortez’s long immersion to Shakespeare plays makes him more than equipped to hurdle the challenge of staging The Bard. “Measure for Measure” is his third directorial work of a Shakespeare play, after “Macbeth” and “Richard III.” He has also acted in the Filipino versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” (translated into “Pagkahabahaba Man ng Prusisyon”) directed by Tony Mabesa, and “Paano Man Ang Ibig”—“As You Like It” as Filipinized for Teatro Pilipino by the late Rolando Tinio.
“Directing Shakespeare gives a director a multitude of challenges,” says Cortez. “For one, the text is very important. Clarity is a prime consideration. Shakespeare does not give lengthy stage directions, thus the director must make his own research. Even scene descriptions are very sparse, so you have to work hard to conjure images of Shakespeare. Various themes can be gleaned, and it’s the role of the director to highlight not all but one or two that would reflect the overall intent of the play. How to make it palatable to young audiences is a challenge, too, without having to succumb to cheap tricks and gimmickry.”
Cortez says serious research work must come before the actual staging of a Shakespeare play.
“To understand Shakespeare, you must immerse in it thoroughly. With good research comes a good understanding of the play. And there is no substitute for intelligent and sensitive actors in Shakespeare productions. Apart from good diction, they should also have well-placed voices, along with discipline, passion and hard work. Actors have to be committed, flexible and not restrictive, inventive and willing to experiment.”
“Measure for Measure,” he says, is a timely offering because of its relevance to present social conditions. “Themes of moral hypocrisy and corruption are just all over the play. In addition, it presents a very clear statement of people who are too judgmental.”
Rich theater life
Cortez credits a rich theater life for helping him evolve as an artist. His theater odyssey started in church, when as a kindergarten student he played the part of Rajah Alimudin. But it was through his later professional interaction with fellow theater practitioners in UP that he says he learned the ropes.
Among them, he mentions Leticia Tison, Anton Juan, the late Behn Cervantes and Rogelio Juliano Jr. But it is Mabesa who has had the greatest impact on him.
“He brought me to Diliman from UP Los Banos when he taught theater there after his return from USA. I first met him in Hawaii in 1973 on my way back to the Philippines. After 1976, theater became my life. So to him, I am most grateful.”
“In my time, there was no school for theater directors,” he adds. “I learned by reading varied scripts, by investing on good books, by constantly studying and reading and watching all the plays in town, whether good or bad productions. Travelling a lot also helps, and so does interacting with artists. You must also love music and the intricacies of choreography. You have to listen to other directors when they comment on your work. You cannot afford to be arrogant. Only your work will say if you are a very effective director and a good one. Lastly, you have to learn to accept criticisms. Good or bad reviews serve a purpose. Theater is a public art, and thus artists will always be subject to criticisms.”